Women and War: Militarism, Bodies, and the Practice of Gender


Riley, Robin L. 2008. “Women and War: Militarism, Bodies, and the Practice of Gender.” Sociology Compass 2 (4): 1192-1208. 

Author: Robin L. Riley


Women around the world, in various geographic spaces, social and cultural contexts, as partners, wives, sisters, daughters, mothers, mourners, and victims experience war. Women's experience of war and their participation in it, either as actors or resistors, victims or perpetrators (Moser and Clark 2001), cheerleaders or critics, are always influenced by the construction of gender operating in and around their lives. While constructions of masculinity and femininity are always circulating in and around militarism and war, women's bodies are sometimes primary considerations for military and state leaders; this creates a visibility/invisibility/hyper-visibility problem for women in wartime. In this essay, women's participation in war as soldiers, refugees, prisoners, jailers, activists, and suicide bombers and the accompanying shift in the practice of femininity and masculinity is explored.

Keywords: refugees



"The capabilities of women's bodies are used to expand ideas about femininity in order to support military recruiting goals without calling into question masculine supremacy at the same time that ideas about femininity are used to justify militarized masculinity and obfuscate men's actions in wartime." (Riley, 1193-1194)

"In the build-up to the attack on Afghanistan in 2001, the liberation of Afghan women was used by the US government as part of the justification for the attack (Ayotte and Hussain 2005; Cooke 2002; Spivak 1988; Young 2003). This justification for US imperialism -- white men saving brown women from brown men (Cooke 2003; Spivak 1988) -- was insincere and positioned Afghan women as helpless and in need of rescue -- a popular narrative that upholds notions of militarized masculine supremacy in wartime (Young 2003). Not surprisingly, US military might did not end the oppression of women in Afghanistan." (Riley, 1196)

"In Iraq, women, who constitute 65 percent of the population (Sandler 2003b), had enjoyed a relatively free way of life for the region under Saddam Hussein's police state, which included safety on the streets, if not safety from Saddam Hussein's repressive tactics (Brown and Romano 2006). Since the USA has occupied Iraq, however, the rate of rapes and kidnappings within Iraq has skyrocketed. This is particularly notable given the social and legal discouragement for reporting rapes (Human Rights Watch 2003). Within their society, Iraqi women have become hypervisible. Afraid to leave their homes because of the threat of rape, they are being pressured, sometimes through open harassment on the street, to cover their heads with a scarf, hijab, or abaya (Colson 2003)." (Riley, 1196)

"While the images of the men abused at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have been seen around the world, less is known about what happened to the women prisoners who were made invisible (Harding 2004, Eisenstein 2007)." (Riley, 1200)

"This gender confusion, where women need protecting but fight alongside men, where they are comrades but not equal comrades, where they want to be treated equally but are not expected to achieve equal standards, leads to what Sheila Jeffreys calls 'double jeopardy' where women in the military, hyper-visible within the ranks, are in danger from both the enemy and their own colleagues." (Riley, 1202)

Topics: Armed Conflict, Displacement & Migration, Refugees, Gender, Women, Masculinity/ies, Gender Analysis, Femininity/ies, Military Forces & Armed Groups, Militarism, Political Participation, Sexuality, Sexual Torture

Year: 2008

© 2023 CONSORTIUM ON GENDER, SECURITY & HUMAN RIGHTSLEGAL STATEMENT All photographs used on this site, and any materials posted on it, are the property of their respective owners, and are used by permission. Photographs: The images used on the site may not be downloaded, used, or reproduced in any way without the permission of the owner of the image. Materials: Visitors to the site are welcome to peruse the materials posted for their own research or for educational purposes. These materials, whether the property of the Consortium or of another, may only be reproduced with the permission of the owner of the material. This website contains copyrighted materials. The Consortium believes that any use of copyrighted material on this site is both permissive and in accordance with the Fair Use doctrine of 17 U.S.C. § 107. If, however, you believe that your intellectual property rights have been violated, please contact the Consortium at info@genderandsecurity.org.